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Christian Unity: Ecumenism of Mercy

Speech given by WCC president for Europe, Archbishop Emeritus Anders Wejryd, at an interreligious conference in Italy organized by the Community of Sant’ Egidio, on 18-20 September.

21 September 2016

At this time, when churches of the reformation - and the Roman-Catholic church - all over the world, are preparing to celebrate Five Hundred Years of Reformation, it is a joy to take part in this special expression of the ongoing jubilee year, the Year of Mercy.

 

1. Mercy can be risky

Mercy, God's mercy and our total dependence upon that for our salvation, was at the heart of Martin Luther, as it was for St. Paul and surely has been also of many Roman-Catholic theologians and ordinary believers both before and after the reformation.

For non-believers mercy is, I think, something that springs out of the individual. That can be good - and that can be disastrous. Giving can lead to imbalance in any relation. The receiver sinks and the giver raises, both in her or his own eyes and in the eyes of others. Justice is always better than mercy - between humans. But in the absence of justice, there is, praise be to God, also the presence of human mercy.

Of course there are many non-believers who can see and withstand the risks which come with mercy - and there are also many believers who fall in the pit of self-rightousness.

Mercy does not come from within oneself. It either comes from God or from a sharing with the other, a knowledge, an insight, that I am what I am, not because of my superior skills or resources, but because of the work, words, inspiration, attitudes and confirmation given by others and The Other. In short: an acceptance of the fact that we are interdependent.

 

2. No mercy without God's mercy

Ecumenism of mercy can run the same risks as any mercy. I am up here and you are down there. Too bad, but I will be nice to you and that might help... We are the real church and you are not, but we can do some things together anyway - but just some. When I say this I do it knowing that these attitudes exist in all churches, be they young or old.

Ecumenism of mercy must have its roots in God's mercy. God is the one who is perfect, none of us is. We are limited by a world where we see as with those old, ancient mirrors of 1 Corinthians 13. But together we do see more, from different viewpoints we discover more of the depth, width and height of God's truth and will. If everything could be said and understood quite clearly and univocally, we would not even have needed four gospels. One should be sufficient.

God has not given us our church because we deserve it. It is given by grace, God's mercy upon us. God has the initiative. We are given the opportunity to serve. That is life - and to many of us the meaning of life!

When we experience that grace and mercy of God, we can be true servants who do not put ourselves in the center. That goes for us as individuals but it also goes for churches. Ecumenism of mercy can only work if we know and constantly acknowledge God's mercy.

 

3. For all - by all

Ecumenism stems from oikoumene, as we all know. It is the whole inhabited world. As we believe in a triune God, we do believe in a God who is creator and upholder of all. We are not supposed to help only people who are Christian but we are supposed to help all we can because we are Christian, as my successor as Primate of Church of Sweden often puts it.

An ecumenism of mercy strives for justice and peace. In the nature of most humans lies a sense of right and wrong - but as we know there is so much more also in our nature - and all of us have difficulties in finding the ways and means to uphold and strengthen what is good. Ecumenism has made a difference to people when actual needs and wrongs have been addressed. It has made a difference for those affected and it surely has made a great difference for those involved, who have discovered new friends and new perspectives in the shared ambitions in different traditions. Ecumenism of mercy also sees to the person, the individual, and not primarily to the institutions or the church itself.

To me it has been natural to distinguish between ecumenism as something pertaining to Christian churches and persons and using the term interreligious dialogue and cooperation for what goes on between religions. Reflecting upon our understanding of the Trinity and of the actual roots of oikoumene, I am not quite so sure about that any longer. It is the same God, whose mercy keeps us all alive and upon whom we are dependent, knowingly or unknowingly. We as Christians know about Christ and have relations to Christ, but the work of Christ is of course changing the prerequisites for all, everywhere. And the Spirit, as we know from the Bible, was active already when all came to be that were to be. Ruach. Through Christ we have new connections with and forgiveness from God, but it is the same Spirit through whom God communicates with all that is.

Through an ecumenism of mercy we can open-mindedly and together discern what is given and inherited in our faith and traditions. San Egidio gives such examples and opens up possibilities of that sort to us.

It is also a joy to many of us to see the activity and inclusivity of the Faith and Order movement, with its roots from the beginning of the 20th century, and the commitment to it also from the Roman-Catholic church, despite of the fact that the RCC is not a member of the World Council of Churches as such, as are most Orthodox churches and churches of the reformation. May we all pay respect to this work before all those who don't even know about it and know even less about the quality with which it is done!

Through an ecumenism of mercy we can act together. When we act to uphold human rights, by assisting, alleviating and striving for justice and peace, we do find out how much we share and how much we need each other. The life and work movement, sprung out of World War I, formed a basis for the ecumenical movement, and still does. But without an ongoing recognition of our common dependence upon the mercy of God, the actions may not lead us to where they ought to lead us. 

Through an ecumenism of mercy, we as Christians can happily go out in mission together, not least in these areas of the world we used to call Christendom. We, as humans, are sent to each other with individual deeds and a responsibility to build better structures, and we are sent to bring on the biblical narrative that changed and changes the world.

Ephesians 4 talks about the unity already being a reality - because of the one Father, the one baptism, etc.. We have to serve together to realize that.

And none of us Christians should be comfortable until we can honestly and wholeheartedly celebrate together and share the eucharist.

 

Anders Wejryd